Saturday, October 27, 2012

How Sigala avoided a honey of a boo boo

Buddhism, in part, is about asking questions to determine how things really are. But to truly see the truth, you have to ask the right questions. And the question on my mind at the moment is whether Honey Boo Boo is foreshadowing the decline of civilization.

Homo say what? Honey Boo Boo?

A friend and former colleague examined this question in a recent column he wrote for The Morning Sun, a newspaper in Mount Pleasant, Mich., and one I worked for in the past. Please take the time to read it, as it is excellent. And don't feign ignorance with me; I know all you moes out there know about Honey Boo Boo, because she is exactly the archetype and stereotype of breeder culture that we love to throw so much shade over that it becomes a black hole. And I bet many of you watched this train wreck of humanity more than once.

Come to the light, children, there is still hope for you.

While I may sound a bit holier-than-though when I say this, it is true: I have not, nor will I, watch Honey Boo Boo. I did watch an online trailer for the show prior to its indecorous debut and that was enough. I wanted to cleanse my eyes with Comet after that. I saw enough, however, to know instantly that civilization was perched upon a perilous precipice, over which it could tumble into oblivion at any moment.

My friend clearly points out in his column that we, in a collective sense, have only ourselves to blame for this type of programming dreck. He writes:

"You can blame the network all you want, but the people who run the network have a very simple mission: Make money. They do that by reducing costs and maximizing viewers. Quality costs money and doesn’t bring the right number of viewers to make it the most profitable way to do business. So, we get Honey Boo Boo.”

And to add insult to injury, the folks in TV land have created elaborate methods to convince you that the programming available is, in fact, high quality backed by tons of creative minds. It's done through the annual awards show that lavishes praise on the most popular programs with idols of pseudo-excellence, which is why programs like "Glee" churn out episode after episode creating new nadirs for every conceivable sexual, racial, and ethnic stereotype out there and cleverly confuses you into thinking that it's really a ground-breaking and inclusive show portraying gays and others in a positive, albeit humorous, light.

It's all a diversion designed to lull you into a false sense of happiness so that you will more readily accept the commercial content that batters your psyche with often better production quality than the programs it sponsors. Its intent is to stupify you in a manner Bob Dylan eloquently described in his song, "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)".

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

This is precisely why the Buddha advised a young fellow named Sigala to avoid theatrical shows.


Patience my pretties. I think that a reason why many practitioners do not read Dhamma is quite similar why other folk do not read the Bible or whatever holy book guides their religion, and this is the language in these texts is archaic and not easily understood. For that reason, it can be easily viewed as irrelevant to today's culture.

For example, in the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha includes "watching theatrical shows" as an item in a list of activities that lead to the loss of wealth. And then he enumerates the reasons why and how watching theatrical shows result in this:

"There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in frequenting theatrical shows. He is ever thinking:

(i) where is there dancing?
(ii) where is there singing?
(iii) where is there music?
(iv) where is there recitation?
(v) where is there playing with cymbals?
(vi) where is there pot-blowing?

Pot-blowing? What the hell is that? And what's wrong with singing and dancing?

This is what I'm talking about. People look at this and think that Buddhism has no relevance for them. The problem, however, is not that Buddhism lacks relevance; the problem is the question - we aren't asking the right questions.

No, there is nothing wrong with singing, or dancing, or even pot-blowing, provided we don't get too carried away. Remember that the Buddha described his path as the middle way. He tried the extremes and found them lacking. The path to spiritual bliss is neither followed by extreme pleasure or by extreme deprivation. And while we follow the way in the middle, we must be honest in evaluating our emotions.

Remember what the First Noble Truth is? For many people, life is more than just unsatisfactory, it can really suck, and too many of us queer folk know this all too well. But for most people life is how Henry David Thoreau described it when he said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

Believe it or not, shows like Honey Boo Boo are tapping into a collective sense of dismay and dissatisfaction that permeates our lives. It presents an opportunity, albeit a false one, for us to watch someone else's life self-destruct and gives us a sense that things can't be all that bad, "thank god I'm not in Honey Boo Boo's family!"

But like the theatrical shows the Buddha warned Sigala about, this is a distraction that keeps us in our self-dug hole of dissatisfaction. Shows like Honey Boo Boo aren't designed to uplift us, to inspire us; they're designed to keep us in a rut of meaningless existence, to set us up for the next string of commercials that will entice us to spend money on goods and services we don't need and which, if we took just a few seconds to think about it, we don't want.

There are a lot of unhappy people in the world. We can't help them all. But are you at least trying to help a few of them?

I know that I am not. And that needs to change.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Homophobe say what?

Few things can get my Hugo Boss tighty-whities in a bunch, but when I read about some of the incredible things some religious leaders, let alone their minions, let flow out of their mouths or their pens,  I swear it makes me want to wear boxers and then run out and make a donation to the Churchof the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Admittedly, this is a problem of mine because I remain in the grips of greed, hatred, and delusion. But when compared with some of the lunacy that has appeared recently in the media (and let us not forget this is nothing new), I come off as absolutely brilliant when I say you should make a Manhattan with rye whiskey and not bourbon.

Well, that is absolutely brilliant. But I digress.

First event occurred last week while I was traveling in Texas. A small time Panhandle minister purchased some space in a rural weekly to enumerate his litany of reasons why folks should not vote for Obama, among them being the president's alleged support for the dreaded "gay agenda."

Seriously, if you have a copy of this, would you mind sending it to me? Because the bitches in the Gay HQ have been ignoring my missives as if I were Phyllis Schlafly.

A few weeks after this atavistic nonsense is published, a gay couple's home in that town was spray painted with the delightful words, "leave or die fags."

In and of itself, such an incident would not normally send me off, even when reading about politicians that espouse the death penalty for rebellious children and evolution deniers who sit on the congressional science advisory committee. But then I read something about an archbishop up in Minnesota that hit just a little too close to home.

Catholic Archbishop for the Twin Cities John Nienstedt has been on a tirade amping up the anti-gay rhetoric with his efforts to promote a state constitutional amendment in Minnesota to ban same-sex marriage, but it was his advice to a young mother with a gay son that stabbed me in the heart. The archbishop told this woman her "eternal salvation" was at stake if she did not toe the line on the church's anti-gay position and do something about her wicked child.

I've worked really hard to remove a particular memory from my mind, to disallow its ability to shape me, and for the most part I've been successful. But when I read about this archbishop, it recalled for me a day when I was in first grade at a Catholic school and the nun teaching the class called me up to her desk. I couldn't look at her as she spoke her vile words, and instead stared at her finger as she pounded it into the top of her desk enunciating her words: "Richard Harrold, you are an evil and wicked little boy, and God has forsaken you."

OK, so I was a victim of a hate crime at 6 years old. Whatever. It was 1964. Nonetheless, the experience left me an angry little boy who grew up to be an angry teenager who chased whatever mind altering substance he could find, and for many years, left me an angry and bitter man. And let me tell you, this was one set of Samsonite I wanted to drop the fuck off on some corner and set on fire. But would I let go of it? No, I had years of being an ox dragging my cart of woes before I finally did. And when I did, I took lots of Polaroids that I keep in my pocket to remind me of my bitterness whenever I feel really happy.

Unsurprisingly, it is at times like these that I retreat into the Buddha's teachings on anger to remind me of the need to develop a compassionate mind. There's no shortage of examples within the Tipitika that extol the virtues of letting anger go. But letting go is only part of the deal. We must also develop compassion, because without compassion, that seed of anger remains within us to be sparked to life at a moment's notice.

The story that puts it all in perspective for me is Kucchivikara-vatthu: The Monk with Dysentery. In this tale, the Buddha finds a monk suffering with dysentery who is being neglected by the other monks. When the Buddha asks why, the reply he gets from the other monks is this monk "doesn't do anything for the monks."

Now, an unskilled reader might view the Buddha's reaction to this information, as he flies into a flurry of activity cleaning and caring for the sick monk, as the Buddha becoming royally pissed at the other monks for being lazy and selfish sumbitches. But remember, the Buddha was an enlightened being; he wasn't angry, he was just throwing some shade. He nursed the sick monk back to health, then admonished the others for their failure to tend to the sick among them. But to be useful to others, one must know what to do, just as a skilled nurse knows how to tend to others.

As good as it might feel in the moment, getting angry is useless. It serves no purpose. And it certainly does nothing to remove the hatred that may prompt it. Anger and hatred are diseases, not just emotions. And there are people dying from these illnesses all over the place.

So when you're angry, may I suggest that you first nurse yourself into good health before you attempt to assist others? You cannot treat anger with more anger. You must first develop compassion. And even if you take a long-ass time developing that compassion and never get around to ministering to others, at least feel comfortable knowing by doing so you're creating one less angry person in this world filled with greed, hatred, and delusion.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Not by hating hatred

Fourteen years ago on Oct. 11, I was working a Sunday evening at The Morning Sun, a daily newspaper in Mount Pleasant, Mich. I was watching some posts on a thing called USENET. Remember that? I was following posts by a fellow who was updating a young man's condition out in Wyoming. This young man was severely beaten, tied to a fence and left there in the cold night on the Wyoming prairie.

His name was Matthew Shepard.

I don't know why, but as I was reading these posts, I felt like something momentous was happening. And as more details of this horrific crime became public, it was clear a fundamental change was about to occur within the American psyche.

Matthew was lured away by two men,  Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who promised to take him home. Instead, they drove Matthew into the middle of the prairie where they pistol whipped him and tortured him. They tied him to a fence where he remained unconscious until about 18 hours later when a cyclist passing by spotted him. Initially, the cyclist thought Shepard was a scarecrow.

McKinney and Henderson met Shepard on Oct. 6, 1998, and it was probably after midnight when they beat him into a coma on Oct. 7. Shepard remained in a coma until he died four days later on Oct. 12.

He was 21.

When all the details of this event became public, the anger and hatred rising inside left me confused and feeling helpless. I hadn't found Buddhism at that time and I struggled to find ways to make sense of such a senseless act. I recall speaking at a candlelight vigil on the Central Michigan University campus; nothing formal, just a hastily organized gathering where I could not remain silent. I don't remember what I said, but I do remember how my voice trembled as I spoke.

Today, however, I do have Buddhism, and I am reminded of the many passages that clearly teach how anger and hatred never achieves anything good.

"As a log from a pyre, burnt at both ends and fouled in the middle, serves neither for firewood in the village nor for timber in the forest, so is such a wrathful man." Anguttara Nikaya II, 95

And in the Dhammapada the Buddha teaches:

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me of my property. Whosoever harbor such thoughts will never be able to still their enmity.

"Never indeed is hatred stilled by hatred; it will only be stilled by non-hatred — this is an eternal law."

And also:

"Guard your mind against an outburst of wrong feelings. Keep your mind controlled. Renouncing evil thoughts, develop purity of mind."

But one of the most interesting Buddhist tales about anger is one about the Anger Eating Demon, which I reprint in its entirety from Access To Insight.

Once there lived a demon who had a peculiar diet: he fed on the anger of others. And as his feeding ground was the human world, there was no lack of food for him. He found it quite easy to provoke a family quarrel, or national and racial hatred. Even to stir up a war was not very difficult for him. And whenever he succeeded in causing a war, he could properly gorge himself without much further effort; because once a war starts, hate multiplies by its own momentum and affects even normally friendly people. So the demon's food supply became so rich that he sometimes had to restrain himself from over-eating, being content with nibbling just a small piece of resentment found close-by.

But as it often happens with successful people, he became rather overbearing and one day when feeling bored he thought: "Shouldn't I try it with the gods?" On reflection he chose the Heaven of the Thirty-three Deities, ruled by Sakka, Lord of Gods. He knew that only a few of these gods had entirely eliminated the fetters of ill-will and aversion, though they were far above petty and selfish quarrels. So by magic power he transferred himself to that heavenly realm and was lucky enough to come at a time when Sakka the Divine King was absent. There was none in the large audience hall and without much ado the demon seated himself on Sakka's empty throne, waiting quietly for things to happen, which he hoped would bring him a good feed. Soon some of the gods came to the hall and first they could hardly believe their own divine eyes when they saw that ugly demon sitting on the throne, squat and grinning. Having recovered from their shock, they started to shout and lament: "Oh you ugly demon, how can you dare to sit on the throne of our Lord? What utter cheekiness! What a crime! you should be thrown headlong into the hell and straight into a boiling cauldron! You should be quartered alive! Begone! Begone!"

But while the gods were growing more and more angry, the demon was quite pleased because from moment to moment he grew in size, in strength and in power. The anger he absorbed into his system started to ooze from his body as a smoky red-glowing mist. This evil aura kept the gods at a distance and their radiance was dimmed.

Suddenly a bright glow appeared at the other end of the hall and it grew into a dazzling light from which Sakka emerged, the King of Gods. He who had firmly entered the undeflectible Stream that leads Nibbana-wards, was unshaken by what he saw. The smoke-screen created by the gods' anger parted when he slowly and politely approached the usurper of his throne. "Welcome, friend! Please remain seated. I can take another chair. May I offer you the drink of hospitality? Our Amrita is not bad this year. Or do you prefer a stronger brew, the vedic Soma?"

While Sakka spoke these friendly words, the demon rapidly shrank to a diminutive size and finally disappeared, trailing behind a whiff of malodorous smoke which likewise soon dissolved.

— Based on Samyutta Nikaya, Sakka Samyutta, No. 22

Hmm, it just occurred to me, did the demon disappear in a fart?